David Prior’s The Empty Man has slowly taken over internet buzz, not unlike the film’s titular villain. One day, I had no idea what it was. The next, I began to notice mentions here and there. Now? It’s everywhere.
One of final films produced by Fox before it was bought by Disney, The Empty Man is based on the graphic novel by Cullen Bunn and stars James Badge Dale as James Lasombra, a former cop who takes on the search for his neighbor’s missing daughter. His search takes him inside a strange cult intent on summoning a supernatural entity that sounds more like an urban legend somewhat inspired by The Ring and similar films initially.
“The first night you hear him. The second night you see him. The third night he finds you,” they say, setting up a timeline for the film and its protagonist as he gets closer and closer to the truth.
Dale leads a talented cast in The Empty Man, including Marin Ireland (The Umbrella Academy), Sasha Frolova (Red Sparrow), Robert Aramayo (Nocturnal Animals), Ron Canada (The Human Stain), and Stephen Root (Office Space), but the film lives and dies by his performance. Fortunately, the actor has the talent to pull that off.
His Lasombra is the everyman we need to walk into situations far too dangerous and terrifying for us as viewers. He is intelligent, passionate, and fallible in all the right ways. We feel his frustration, his curiosity, and ultimately his anger and fear.
What I loved most about this film is oddly tied exactly to the film’s biggest issue for me. This is a gorgeous slow-burn movie that takes its time building tension and atmosphere. Prior and his cast underscore repeatedly that it is not only what you see, but what you can’t, that can harm you. They carry it out so successfully that even small things can unsettle the viewer, and when larger, more in-your-face scares happen, they’ll set your heart racing.
Moreover, they lean into the scary cult trope in just the right ways. The idea of a group of people carrying out nefarious practices is one that has been used and abused in horror, so it’s nice to see a film take the trope for what it is and execute it with finesse to build paranoia in its protagonist and in its audience.
Who can you really trust in your life? Who do you really know? More importantly, what do you really know about yourself and the people around you with certainty?
The Empty Man pokes at these ideas repeatedly, irritating them and underscoring the unease of the film’s audience while expertly exploiting the deconstructionist writings of Jacques Derrida as well as the perspectivist leanings of Nietzsche. We could dig further into these topics–I have a lot to say about the name Pontifex Group and James Lasombra–but in doing so, we’d come very close to falling for the same hazard that threatens to trip up the film.
As a whole, The Empty Man is so dense that it ultimately runs entirely too long. As reviewers we’re often criticized for talking about pacing and editing issues without giving solid examples. Fortunately, that’s not the case here.
There’s an entire section at the beginning of the film that deals with the concept of the Empty Man in another country with another group of people. We get a full story in about 15 to 20 minutes which is only tangentially referenced later in the film. This entire subplot could have been cut, pruning the film’s run time down to under the two hour mark, and making a tighter, more focused story.
Fortunately, even this misstep cannot ruin what is undeniably a great film with legitimate scares and a conclusion that is genuinely uncomfortable in all the best ways. The Empty Man is currently streaming on HBO Max and is available to rent on other digital platforms.
Take a look at the trailer below, and let us know if you’ve seen the film in the comments!